Excitement is in the air at Moghalmari near Dantan in West Midnapore district. For archaeologists of the state archaeology department have discovered what is about to be proved as the oldest archaeological site in West Bengal.
The famous Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang, who travelled widely in the subcontinent in the 7th century AD, had categorically mentioned that an old Buddhist monastery existed in Bengal, and was older than the Raktamrittika Vihara in Murshidabad. However, proof was not forthcoming till a decade back.
The excavation site in Moghalmari
Detailed excavations began in 2003, when the Moghalmari mound was discovered by Indologist BN Mukherjee. But it continued only in fits and starts. It was not till last November that a detailed excavation was planned by the state excavation department. And what has been found in the last few months, have left archaeologists very excited. Not only that, the mounds which have been planned to be excavated over the next several seasons promise a treasure trove, to turn the site into one of the most important discoveries in India.
The mound which initially caught BN Mukherjee’s attention is called Sakhi Sena or Sashi Sena by the locals. Locals told him that underneath the mound lay an ancient Buddhist monastery. His efforts were continued by the archaeology department of Calcutta University (CU). Now it would be continued by the state archaeology department.
The site presents structural evidence of a Buddhist monastery, a stupa, votive stupas and numerous antiquities. The archaeologists, working in 25 trenches since November, have found some very important artefacts till now. These include
- a headless votive figure of the meditating Buddha with 6th-century BC Brahmi inscriptions
- a remarkable mixed-metal coin of King Samachardeva
- a terracotta circular plaque of 5 cm diameter
- several terracotta seals, six of which are intact and bear Buddhist script
- shards of everyday pottery, terracotta and glass beads, and hopscotch (probably used as weights)
A stucco discovered at the site
According to Asok Dutta, under whose leadership the CU teams had been digging, the instances of stucco in situ figurines and decorations on the walls of the stupa are rare and have the artistic finesse of those found in monasteries in Nalanda, Vikramshila (both in Bihar), Paharpur (in Bagladesh) and Karnasuvarna (in Murshidabad district). Paharpur and Nalanda are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The stupa is yet to be excavated. The wall with stucco designs which has been excavated is currently being interpreted by experts.
Last year, Goutam Ghosh came here to shoot for a documentary on the area
Amal Roy, the deputy director of archaeology on location in Moghalmari, said the discovery of the coin suggested that Samachardeva, a monarch from an independent post-Gupta dynasty, might have sponsored the monastery and stupa. The patterns on the coin and the pendant are similar to those from the Gupta age, suggesting Samachardeva’s efforts to imitate or match the glory of the illustrious dynasty.
Gold pendant from the site (Note the two holes at the top used to hang it)
Archaeologists are also excited about a huge complex at the lower level that can be reached through a staircase. So far 11 steps of bricks, decorative bases of two pillars and several square chambers have been discovered.
The terracotta tablets that have been discovered are unique. They have
herbal and medicinal value and were used as incense tablets to be burnt
inside earthen bowls. It was believed that when the tablets smouldered
gradually, the perfume spread the message of the Buddhist dharma.
Rajat Sanyal, an archaeologist from CU who was connected with the project, says it is clear from the coin, locket and tablets that the monastery got a lot of royal attention. However, Hiuen Tsang's memoirs indicate that merchants from nearby Dantan (near the then major port of Tamralipta) also frequented the monastery.
Coin from the site
Exciting times ahead
Though quite a few structures and artefacts have been discovered, it is clear from studies of the site that a lot is left to be discovered. A few hurdles like a road which passes along the site, and a village clubhouse which sits atop a mound, need to be cleared. Archaeologists connected with the project are hopeful that these hurdles would be overcome with the cooperation of the local people.
The excavation spots are protected by wooded fences
After all, seeing the large spread of the site and its antiquity, this place has a huge potential to become one of the topmost tourist destinations in the state. And locals would benefit a lot from the inflow, as happens at any tourist spot. The state has identified land for a museum and Rs 70 lakh would be sanctioned soon. This will ensure proper safekeeping and public display.